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Degenerate sublime

The Young British Artists were one of the Nineties' most visible cultural phenomena, a byword for ex

Lucky Kunst: the Rise and Fall of Young British Art

Gregor Muir

Aurum Press, 250pp, £14.99

"Ever feel like you've been cheated?" Johnny Rotten asked his audience in 1978. Lucky Kunst, an insider's account of the rise and fall of the YBAs (Young British Artists), has something of the same smirking audacity, inviting you to look back at Damien's shark, Tracey's tent, Sarah Lucas's Two Fried Eggs and a Kebab - and wonder why you fell for any of it.

The author is the gallerist, journalist and hanger-on Gregor Muir. He went to the wrong art college, Camberwell, when it was at Goldsmiths that the YBAs were hatched, and made up for this solecism by never missing a single YBA studio party or private view for the next decade, which he spent "running with the art pack". He subsisted by writing articles about them for specialist magazines, when he wasn't busy mopping the blood from Jake Chapman's broken nose or propping up the bar with Tracey Emin after her incoherent television appearance in 1997 (she kept saying she had to go and do it, forgetting it had already happened). The author has paid for this material with his liver.

But was it worth it? The private lives of artists rarely endear them to us, and the chatter at a vernissage is seldom profound. The thinly veiled accounts of Cézanne and Monet carousing in Zola's Oeuvre make prats of them both. The stories Muir tells here, however, are on another level altogether. Loutish doesn't even begin to cover it. Every other page has an anecdote to make you cringe. Jay Jopling fitting one arm of his trademark spectacles up his nose. Damien Hirst painting his scrotum with dots and inviting people to have a look for 50p. Sarah Lucas, in Venice for the Biennale, wandering home singing: "All we are saying . . . is a give pizza a chance."

It's not that they should know better - they do know better, but they do it anyway. That was the great self-sustaining trick of YBA art: its practitioners recognised their own limitations and incorporated them into their work, girding themselves with an impenetrable, protective loop of irony in the process. Hirst was particularly adept at this. The respected critic David Sylvester once wrote him a letter saying he no longer wanted to interview him, because he had just seen his film Hanging Around and had been "appalled by its mediocrity, banality, self-indulgence and lack of self-criticism". What did Hirst do? Make it into a work of art, of course. He blocked out lines of the letter, giving it a mad, menacing look, like a blackmail note from the Establishment, and printed it in a flip book.

That's not the sort of anecdote that makes it into Muir's memoir. There aren't many direct quotations in this boozy romp, which is infuriatingly blurry round the edges. It isn't a great book by any means, but there is something authentically "YBA" about it. Just as Damien makes a feature out of his failings, this book takes a sort of pleasure in the lameness of its revelations. Take the passage about how the Goldsmiths group show "Freeze" got its name: "The title comes from Matt Collishaw's light-box, dedicated to a moment of impact, a preserved now, a Freeze-frame. There is, however, an alternative account that suggests its title came from a type of lettuce. To be precise, one sitting on Abigail Lane's kitchen table during a meeting in the run-up to the show."

Or, how about this little scene, which depicts the YBAs preparing a show paid for by the British Council: "One afternoon, Gary [Hume] got up and nailed a potato to the wall, asking: 'What do you think about that?' After much consideration, we decided against the inclusion of that particular work."

The double scoop that Muir delivers is this: the YBAs were even dumber than we thought, which means that concomitantly, in making all that money, taking in the Royal Academy and giving off that atmosphere of glamour and importance, they were even cleverer than we thought - right? Muir claims he still respects the artists he spent a decade trailing, but it is a knowing, disillusioned respect. Taken from the name of a group show curated by Muir, the crudely punning title suggests what we are meant to call the artists admiringly, under our breath. Except that it is not even a pun - merely a lazy, slurred gesture towards one.

Just when Muir's attitude seems to be truly infra dig (one chapter ends triumphantly with him obtaining a free flight to Venice, courtesy of the British Council), he redeems himself with a gauche but heartfelt appreciation of certain works of art. This is also a part of the YBAs' arsenal: they reserve the right to flash their sincerity when they choose. Muir writes honestly about yearning to buy a Lucas but lacking the nerve. To him, her 1992 table adorned with two fried eggs and a kebab "remains a work of transformative genius". He also rates the toilet she installed in the middle of the gallery at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, recounting with brio Charles Saatchi's reaction when he realised it actually flushed. "He looked at me, wide-eyed with astonishment, and mouthed the word wow."

The work that Muir was first entranced by - and which, he claims, inspired him to follow the merry YBA dance across London's "adult playground" of bars - was Hirst's A Thousand Years (1990), an ensemble piece with rotting cow's head, maggots, flies and electrocution device. It is strange that Muir does not recall from Gordon Burn's book of interviews with Hirst (On the Way to Work, 2001) that it was this piece which also fascinated Francis Bacon, who spent an hour watching the flies sizzle. Nor does he mention Hirst's account of Lucian Freud's reaction: "Damien, I've seen the fly piece. And I think you started with the final act."

Lucky Kunst does not reach much beyond Muir's opinions. It is not broadly authoritative, but it is often sharply atmospheric: Sam Taylor-Wood on the phone, putting another ten-pence piece into the slot; Jake and Dinos Chapman's hands, covered in multicoloured dyes from their shift work at Gilbert and George's studio; the weirdness of Hirst's short-lived Pharmacy restaurant ("Stubbing my cigarette out in a medical dish . . ."). It's a picaresque journey, a fly- in-the-vitrine's-eye view of the period. Call it mindless hedonism or call it the primacy of lived experience; either way, it's what the YBAs are all about. Jake Chapman called it their "hilarislide into a degenerate sublime". The Saatchi-owned YBA Peter Davies put it another way: "If you approach from too learned an attitude, you miss out on the reality."

But surely there is a balance to be struck? La vie bohème is usually about earnestness as well as absinthe, the purity of intellectual debate redeeming the swill of drink and drugs. Not here. Hirst, writes Muir, "remained belligerent towards those who tried to corner him into a more earnest conversation about art. The more worthy they were, the more likely they were to get it in the neck."

So unremitting is the puerility that you prize the rare moments of sincerity, such as when Tracey Emin cries because two Chinese performance artists have staged a pillow fight on her unmade bed. Not that she doesn't keep up with the rest of them: after a night out at the Cologne Art Fair, she crouches on hands and knees, throwing up "into a corporate water feature, directly opposite the Artforum stand, where a woman looked on in horror". Tracey loves this book. She quoted this passage in her column in the Independent. Again, it's that impregnable YBA loop: incorporate your weakness and you're invincible. You've got to hand it to them for nerve.

When Zola sent a copy of 'Oeuvre to his childhood friend Cézanne, the painter wrote back a stiff note of thanks and never spoke to him again. Clearly the artists depicted here do not feel so easily diminished. Whether they will thank Muir in the long run, however, is questionable. Perhaps my favourite passage is the one where Muir, describing the 1993 Hoxton artists' village fair called "A Fete Worse Than Death", seems to believe that "Bash a Rat" is a work of art invented by Gavin Turk. On rereading, I must concede he may possibly be aware it is a staple of the British summer fete, but if so, why does he spend a paragraph admiringly describing its mechanics?

The fete was organised by Joshua Compston, who would shortly become the Chatterton of the movement, a Dadaist who died, poisoned by his own hand, aged 25. Muir's chapter on him is good, adding vivid memories otherwise unrecorded, such as the time Compston served his friends a Christmas cake, with cheese: "As we were eating it he proudly informed everyone that the cake had been made at the time of the Crimean War and remained in a self-preserving state ever since." Muir is silent on the subject of the other YBA tragedy, the suicide last year of Angus Fairhurst.

Having risen so forcefully, the YBAs do not seem to fall so much as give out, get grand and clean up (in every sense). Muir visits Hirst en famille at his grand estate in Devon, where they have a huge roast dinner as they take in the idyllic view down to the sea. "[As I took] stock of my surroundings, it occurred to me that this was where all the money had gone, all those spot paintings and vitrines. Hirst had had the balls to pull it off. He had taken huge risks with his career, and his life, just to get to this moment."

What are we left with? A shark turning ever more wrinkly, as Hirst's original concept dilutes and proliferates (his latest vitrine, on order for the oligarch Philippe Niarchos, contains seven sharks; its title is Seven Deadly Sins). A kiddie handprint portrait of Myra Hindley by Marcus Harvey, written off as a bad memory until a tourism agency selected it to represent Britain at the Beijing Olympics, to show how tolerant we are of offensive material. Some very expensive ashes on the wind over Leytonstone, where the Momart warehouse fire raged. And a grassy spot near Victoria Park in Mile End, where Rachel Whiteread's House once stood. This book does nothing to help redeem a legacy in bad shape.

Hermione Eyre is a critic for the Independent

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The New Depression